Mass surveillance

Published February 21, 2016
The writer is co-founder and director of Bolo Bhi, a civil rights group working on gender and digital rights.
The writer is co-founder and director of Bolo Bhi, a civil rights group working on gender and digital rights.

NEARLY three months after the terrorist assault that left 14 dead in San Bernardino, California, the FBI is still attempting to answer some questions concerning shooters Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik. About two weeks ago, FBI called Apple’s base camp in Cupertino, California: the office needed Apple to help them get through the passcode on one of the attacker’s phone. Passcodes are a way to protect your phone from unwanted access; in order to comply with FBI’s request Apple would have to devise a way to hack the iPhone. Apple refused.

A federal magistrate then urged Apple to comply with FBI’s request. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook stepped up by releasing a public letter to its customers revealing in-depth the reasons for their refusal to comply. It wasn’t long until Google, Facebook and Twitter joined in to support Cook’s decision. The ensuing legal battle will have a far-reaching impact, and is currently stirring the debate on whether national security can determine the way Silicon Valley operates.

In his letter, Cook makes it clear that the request is no ordinary feat, as of now Apple doesn’t have the keys to break into to the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. Truth be told, it doesn’t have the keys to any iPhone. That is the thing that makes the innovation known as ‘end-to-end encryption’ so solid: no one aside from the end clients — the individual communicating something specific and the individual getting it on the flip side — can unscramble a message while it’s travelling through the internet.


Who will guard the guards when it comes to the internet?


Bypassing end-to-end encryption would require the company to make a new operating system. This is where Apple drew the line, even if FBI says it’ll only use this method for this particular case. “There is no way to guarantee such control,” Cook wrote. This is the crux of the argument against all types of mass surveillance: who will guard the guards?

This isn’t a new debate. The past few years have seen extensive insight into various US law-enforcement agencies and their invasive global pursuit of personal information on citizens. In 2012, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed to the world the extent to which the National Security Agency (NSA) was listening in and tracking daily the activity of hundreds of millions of people’s online activity. But how much is too much? This is clearer than ever before: national security agencies are hell-bent on getting as much access to digital data as possible and while they make a security argument, civil rights activists are blowing the whistle of an Orwellian reality, where one central controller has access to all the information, all the time.

Judging from attacks in Paris and elsewhere it’s clear that access to everybody’s information doesn’t necessarily lead to an end to violence. In fact, mass surveillance creates a ‘needle in a haystack’ scenario for law-enforcement agencies and creates an environment where every single person is guilty or a person of interest unless proven otherwise.

What does this mean for Pakistan? What happens in the US has had a trickle-down effect in many countries, including ours. The aftermath of the NSA revelations saw governments, including ours, scrambling for more control. We witnessed a similar incident when Blackberry released a statement informing users that it planned to exit Pakistan over pressure from security agencies for user data. The company subsequently announced the issue was resolved.

But it isn’t about just one company against the government. The past decade has pushed us to a place where even calling us a police state is an understatement. Our government and agencies have made every effort to reduce civil liberties and to use technology to watch all online activity. They are accountable to no one. The widespread surveillance doesn’t work in isolation; it is part of a broader campaign of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, ethnic and racial profiling, etc.

Newer, more expensive and ‘cleverer’ spying technology has not and will not reduce the number of people who die from terrorism-related attacks every year. Similarly, further weakening of laws and policy protections doesn’t lead to decreased violence.

As one of the most important legal battles of the decade unfolds in the US, we must ask ourselves the same question: how much is too much? It is time for a clear demarcation between privacy and security. What is most ironic is that the race for more control and expansive surveillance is creating a world where citizens are relying on profit-driven corporations to defend and protect their constitutional rights and civil liberties, a job that was once reserved for our elected representatives.

The writer is co-founder and director of Bolo Bhi, a civil rights group working on gender and digital rights.

Twitter: @SanaSaleem

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2016

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